Book Review: Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle
by Gino Fanelli | published Oct. 31st, 2014
While I was an eighth grade verifiable nerd leafing through a copy of "Leaves of Grass," a school librarian once told me that books are gateways to a world of imagination. They hold the power to grab you by the hand and drag you through a journey to far off, fantastical lands. This is not what John Darnielle's debut novel "Wolf in White Van" does. It does not take you on a journey to Narnia. It ties you to a chair in a room painted in seamless, stagnant eggshell white. The soft stench of something decaying rises slowly yet unmistakably from beneath the floorboards while every half an hour or so someone slides a note scrawled with some sort of cryptic clue beneath the door. It is less of a roller coaster and more of a carousel, spinning quicker and quicker while chips of worn paint splinter off of wooden horses and carriages with each rotation, inevitably crumbling apart, with hooves and tails flying off into the carnival. It is dark, purposefully repetitive, introspective, self-reflective and just plain beautiful.
Darnielle, best known for his work as writer, guitarist, singer and sometimes sole member of indie-folk band The Mountain Goats, has carried a well-known legacy in his 23-year run as a musician for complex lyricism formed from memoir-esque reflections, consistent narratives and literary imagery. Paste Magazine has gone so far as to rank Darnielle number 82 on their list of top 100 living songwriters. "Wolf in White Van" carries much of the poignancy and prose of Darnielle's lyricism, echoing with constant self-awareness and esoteric observations of the narrator, Sean Phillips.
Phillips is a game designer, though not of traditional video or board games, but rather of an antiquated style of gaming based off of subscribers mailing in their moves in a post-apocalyptic world, with Phillips mailing back the results of their actions. The goal of the game is to reach the Trace Italian, a safe haven from wasteland-dwelling mutants and radiation. However, no one ever reaches the Trace Italian. There is no end to the game, and there is no set conclusion. Players keep making moves, their hopes rising that their next will hold salvation or revelation, only to be struck down by another setback. "Wolf in White Van" sets out to create the exact same setting as the game within its pages by leading the reader through a spider web of stream-of-consciousness musings until just the point where they believe they see the spider coming, only for it to scurry off into the distance and repeat the cycle yet again.
It's hard to give an objective analysis of the plot of "Wolf in White Van," and near impossible to give a summary. What revelations may ruin the story for some might just be a passing glance for another reader. In a stylistic sense, a strong parallel can be made to Danielewski's modern classic "House of Leaves," for a winding, twisting story line based off of repetition and the cerebral first person narration. What can be said for sure is that, if a reader is expecting a book that follows a conscious, fluid plot and ends with everything tied up in a neat bow, "Wolf in White Van" is a guaranteed disappointment. However, for the reader looking for the story that chooses to pose questions rather than answers, and chooses to exemplify the beauty in monotony over climactic action, "Wolf in White Van" is a must read.